The amendment would have meant the government had to reconsider trade deals with countries deemed to be committing genocideAnadolu Agency/Getty Images

On 19th January, the government narrowly defeated the so-called ‘genocide amendment’ to the Trade Bill by 319 votes to 308. Powers to rule on whether a foreign country is committing genocide will now not be invested in our domestic courts, marking a milestone in the collapse of government respect for domestic and international human rights.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brexit is a major cause of these erosions. One of the government’s current priorities is landing new trade deals; central to the controversy over the genocide amendment is China, alleged to be committing genocide against the Uighur Muslims. Trade Minister Greg Hands, who supported the government’s opposition to the bill, has sought to allay fears with assurances that the government has no plan to sign a free trade deal with China. But that rather misses the point.

“It is truly worrying that genocide now has an intrinsic value.”

The government’s defeat of the amendment doesn’t actually diminish protections – rather, it vividly illustrates the diminishing importance the government places on them. Normally, scrutiny of a trade agreement pivots on whether it is a ‘good deal’; of course, any human rights implications are considered as part of this. But it is difficult to imagine significant opposition to a valuable, low-tariff deal owing to a small number of minor rights abuses. And if this will occur with small abuses, why not large ones? Why not genocide? If small abuses are considered worth sweeping under the carpet in the pursuit of a desirable trade deal, it can only follow that rights infringements constitute a currency on the negotiating table. It is truly worrying that genocide now has an intrinsic value.

The genocide amendment was the ideal solution. Allowing courts to identify ongoing genocides would detach the most serious human rights abuses from the merits of any trade deal. Any divergence from proper rights protection would be identified and isolated, and abuses could not be cloaked by the heavy rhetoric of achieving a good deal. But the government decided otherwise.

“We are not only failing to excel in human rights protection. We are falling behind.”

This brings us back to Brexit, the UK’s opportunity to showcase its commitment to human rights as a single player in the international community, our chance to forge a new path for a brighter future just as the campaigns intimated we would. Unfortunately, the government has not taken this opportunity, and now we are not only failing to excel in human rights protection. We are falling behind.

The Trump administration, and the US more generally, is hardly famed for its human rights record. Separating families at borders, detaining children in overcrowded adult prisons, and recent use of the death penalty are not news to us. Yet in his final 24 hours in office, even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo determined that China’s treatment of the Uighurs constituted an ongoing genocide, calling for international cooperation to create accountability for those responsible. Boris Johnson has expressly chosen not to call out the genocide for what it is. The UK’s response is feeble in comparison.

But what does the amendment’s defeat mean for domestic human rights? These rights are enforced through the Human Rights Act 1998. It is perhaps surprising that the act which aims to “bring rights home” has never had a secure existence. Both Tony Blair, who introduced it, and Theresa May, have openly objected to the specific protections it brings. And while the EU-UK deal goes some way towards ensuring some domestic rights protection, the defeat of the genocide amendment is nonetheless indicative of the decline in the value the government seems to place on rights protection. The act’s existence has perhaps never been more unstable, and government opposition to the genocide amendment causes concern that the grand post-Brexit retaking of control over human rights law will simply constitute tearing it up.


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A pandemic has hardly helped. Lord Sumption has repeatedly shared his concerns that restrictions on basic social freedoms mirror a rising “totalitarian society”. While I doubt that despotism will arise here anytime soon, it is crucial that measures that perturb the former Supreme Court Justice should be subject to extremely close scrutiny for their rights implications.

The UK’s respect for and commitment to upholding human rights both domestically and internationally is at the lowest it has been for decades. The government needs to be careful.